Retreat Contemplating Death at the Edge of the Continent
I do not feel that I choose the fear so much as it chooses me.
The clouds move almost imperceptibly here at the edge of the continent. The Pacific Ocean stretches out to the horizon in a shade of blue that matches the upper echelons of the sky, and it isn’t hard to imagine that the car engines I hear going down Highway One are jet skis taking fun-loving monks out for a ride under the stationary clouds.
Here, two miles off and above the highway, is the New Camaldoli Hermitage, where I have come for two days of silence and solitude. It is just south of the tiny town of Lucia and features nine guest rooms and five private hermitages which can be rented for $130 a night, including food. Prayers are offered four times a day—morning vigil at 5:30, Lauds at 7, Eucharist at 11:30, and Vespers at 6. There are twenty or so monks who live here. The first time I came, when my sister brought me a year ago for a weekend retreat and I fell for the serenity of the campus, the quarterly hermitage newsletter was overflowing with news of a new monk, Brother John, who was young and good-looking and wore a watch in all of his pictures.
Camaldolese monks follow the Brief Rule of St. Romuald, a tenth-century Italian monk who sought to combine the best of the hermetic and communal traditions in the church. “Sit in your cell as in paradise,” the Rule begins. “Put the whole world behind you and forget it. Watch your thoughts like a good fisherman watching for fish.” I am not Catholic, but I love the Catholic reverence for tradition and wisdom, the memento mori that was absent from my evangelical upbringing. At Vespers, the evening prayer service, we sang from Psalm 116: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones.” To sit in one’s cell as in paradise, one has to be still, to cease the frantic activity that we mistake so often for life. A friend of mine recently posted a beautiful sunset photo on Instagram with the caption, “the world ends every day.” If that’s the case, there is no better place to watch the world end than at a monastery at the edge of the continent, where each sleep is a death and each morning you rise as in paradise.
I come to the hermitage to remember that I am going to die. It is the same reason I have spent an odd amount of time in cemeteries, reading the names and lifespans and occasionally looking at the images of people I have never known. “You are still afraid to die,” the priest Henri Nouwen wrote. “That fear is connected with the fear that you are not loved.”
As a girl, I worried about death often. I performed a breast self-exam at nine years old after reading about it in one of my mom’s magazines. I was studious about which kinds of sunscreens were superior to others to protect my fair skin. Whenever my parents were late returning home from a night out, I was sure they had died in a car accident and it was only a matter of time before we got a phone call from the police. I was five when my grandfather died, and even then was angry I wasn’t allowed to go to the funeral. But I was always afraid of death, because I was afraid of separation. Separation anxiety made me fear being away from my parents, certainly, but also from my home, my things, my life.
I spend most of my life trying to forget that I am going to die. This kind of denial is mostly a gift, I think, because if I lived in constant fear of death, I would be overwhelmed and unable to live a meaningful life. For instance, the day after the 2016 presidential election, I woke up feeling like someone I loved had died. That sense of mournfulness I carried with me for the next week and couldn’t shake, no matter how hard I tried.
One question, with what seemed to me a foregone conclusion, kept inserting itself into my thought process: If we are all going to die, what’s the point of life? The answer, I thought, must be that there was no point. All of our good deeds would be outweighed by all of our bad, and eventually, which would really be not too long in the grand scheme of things, we would all get into a car accident or receive a diagnosis of advanced melanoma or have a heart attack at the dinner table. During that week, I would look into the faces of people I passed on the street in my neighborhood, searching for clues of their eventual demise and whether they were in on some secret that I wasn’t. A lifelong Christian, I had no faith in anything except the ability of time to destroy us all.
I have been biting my nails again. Prior to the election I had mostly stopped, and took pride in seeing my once-inflamed cuticles pitch back to their normal shape, and in the nails that grew again above the quick, and in the rings I wear—one on each hand—that remind me of the most important moments in my life, two different deaths: the death to self that is a marriage, and the death of the baby I carried for three months. I finally felt proud of my hands. But since that day, my nails are once again bitten down to the quick and my nail beds are red and swollen and the skin around my nails is not beautiful. These are not the hands of a successful author, of a thirty-one-year-old woman who has her life together. These are the hands of a frightened child, which, if I’m honest, is how I feel most of the time.
Fear has always been my way of operating in an uncertain world. I was an anxious child who grew into an anxious adult, my mind scanning all the possible outcomes of a given situation, landing on the worst, and preparing for it. This has led me down paths of self-protection and cynicism that do not lead to contentment or joy.
But the fear is subconscious and pervasive; I do not always feel that I choose it so much as it chooses me. What other way is there to live when none of us can control the outcome? I look at my husband, Zack, who would hardly know fear if it was a snake that bit him. And I marvel at him, as if he were a creature in a museum from a faraway planet. I would like to visit his planet. But I couldn’t stay, because something bad would happen if I did. What if my spaceship broke down? What if I had to stay on a non-anxious planet forever? I wouldn’t know how to live.
Because I do not hope to be trapped in fear forever, I try to remember that I am going to die, and that I do have control over the ways that I think and live and love and serve the people around me. I also try to remember that there is beauty in the world, like those fat clouds that do not hurry and the monks on their jet skis and the convergence of the ocean with the sky. I think about the lives of the monks, most of which has already passed.
They are, except for Brother John, gray-haired men now, with dark spots on the backs of their hands and orthopedic shoes and, for several, canes to help them navigate the steps from their cloisters to the church and back. They have or have not had sex. They have or have not been in love. They do or do not believe in God every day. They say the same words, pray the same prayers, go to sleep at the same time, every day. They look out onto the endless Pacific every day and rarely leave, except to visit this brother or that monastery. I want my life to be different. I want to be put on your pedestal. They may want the same things, but they arrange their lives so that they will not get them. That’s a kind of death, too.
My cell at the hermitage—that’s what they call the rooms that guests stay in—is simple but not austere. There is a twin bed in one corner, with a crucifix above. Catholics always have Jesus still on the cross. Evangelicals present just the cross, presumably because the emphasis is on Jesus’s resurrection; evangelicals believe Catholics are kind of creepy in their obsession with Jesus’s death. But I like seeing Jesus on that slender crucifix above my bed. He has died, too, I remember.
There is a desk under the window where I type these words, and a small dresser with a lamp. To the right of the dresser is a rocking chair, a heater, a rack on which to hang coats and towels, and behind that, the front door. The desk faces the ocean, and between the ocean and me is a small yard covered in small rocks and the inhospitable shrubs that grow at the edge of the continent: manzanitas, chaparral, stinging phacelia. This morning, I sat there reading Love on the Mountain , a chronicle of one monk’s life at the New Camaldoli Hermitage, when a lizard caught my eye. At first, I wasn’t sure if it was a lizard or just a small brown stick, so I got closer, and then, when it didn’t move, I wasn’t sure if it was still alive. I poked it with a dead flower stem, brushed its back, and it didn’t move. My skin crawled. I felt like Annie Dillard in A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek , a book I hated half out of the need to be contrary and half because the opening story, of the fighting tom cat, was not actually true. I poked the lizard one more time and it flew up in the air and landed on a pile of discarded fern leaves. It looked at me and I wondered for an instant if it was actually dead, if I had somehow caused its body to be flung two feet in the air, but then it disappeared into the ground and I saw it was alive. In Love on the Mountain , Robert Hale quotes Wallace Stevens: “Life is the elimination of what is dead.” But that seems to me only half the story: Life is also the acceptance of what, including ourselves, will die.
The sunlight in my cell reaches the wall around 8:30 in the morning, and then travels back, to the door, then to the bed around 3:00, just in time for an afternoon nap. I have arranged my days here around the four prayer meetings, except that I am never awake for vigils, even though I fall asleep very early. In between prayers I eat, read, pray, and nap, with an hour or so for a hike in the afternoon. In Love on the Mountain , Father Hale’s rhythm is disrupted when he has to drive to Monterey to meet with a doctor about a growth in his armpit, the same location of a growth that had killed his brother years before. “We will know the results of the biopsy tomorrow afternoon,” he writes (the book takes the form of daily journal entries). “Suppose it is malignant cancer? . . . Driving home I felt waves of panic, then some deep prayer, even a kind of peace ‘that passes understanding.’” The next day he gets a call from the doctor: The mole is not malignant, and life would go on. “I do not want to slip back into a life as usual,” Hale writes. “Sooner or later, something like a mole or a stroke will do me in. And God will be there in a very special way, and I want to be there with God.”
The monastery is meant to be a place of silent retreat, so I rarely talk to the other guests. There is one man who arrives at the chapel a moment before I do and always guides me to the correct book of prayers for that particular service, which saves me a considerable amount of embarrassment. I wonder if we could talk together about our fears, or if these small kindnesses would be ruined by conversation. Do the other guests here fear death, too? If not, why are they here?
Eventually, the sun bleaches the ocean to a lighter shade of blue, so that at its edge it looks almost white. I am in Room 2 at the hermitage; I wonder what the woman in Room 3 is doing right now, or the man in Room 7. Are they seeing what I’m seeing? Are we, in our lonelinesses, more alike than we are different? That is the only consolation. I hear the sound of the jet skis again and wonder if the monks wear their choir robes when they hop on. I am so afraid of death. That is why I am here.